Are Government Agencies Serious About Open Source?

The office of the CIO issued a document for public review, outlining the plan to move away from applications that save files in proprietary formats.

Recent stories about open source technology in government raises the question of whether CIOs of municipalities are serious about moving to Linux and open source technology, or if they are just using the threat of such a switch as a way to either get Microsoft to lower pricing on its software, or to force the dominant desktop software vendor to add new features?

One case involves the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' plan to dump proprietary software and move to such technologies as Linux on the desktop, and OpenOffice for productivity applications. Earlier this month, the office of the CIO issued a document for public review, outlining the plan to move away from applications that save files in proprietary formats. The document calls for all government documents to be saved in the XML-based OpenDocument standard.

Some have called the time frame for the transition - Jan. 1, 2007 - unrealistic, while others say that all the tiny, but important nuances of state government and technology have not been through. For example, several observers including advocates for the blind and disabled have said that such a move would be disruptive and cause problems by making state-run Web sites and digital documents inaccessible to the disabled; much of the accessibility technology the state has used is built on Microsoft technology. Mandating a changeover in such a short time, and without proper funding, would be a disservice to citizens, critics say.

After releasing its proposal calling for a wide-scale shift to open source, the state's CIO Peter Quinn seemed to back off the open source push in a call with reporters, saying that the idea is just to move to an open standard of file formats, the XML-based OpenDocument standard for file formats. This might not necessarily preclude Microsoft desktops. (Microsoft Office 12, due in 2006, is supposed to have XML support, but does not use the OpenDocument standard by default.)

"We have tens of thousands of desktops in the Commonwealth, and most run Microsoft Office," Quinn says. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we didn't have to deal with that kind of transition anytime soon? At the end of the day, we hope everyone gets to open formats."

So the question from the top of this newsletter remains: is Massachusetts serious about breaking with Microsoft on the desktop, or just using the threat of such as jump as leverage to get the features it wants in Office 12?

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